- This week, 40 years after the murder of a Black man, James Chaney, and two Jewish civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and James Schwerner in Philadelphia, Missisipi, the man who masterminded those murders was finally apprehended. I was 14 then, living where in Philadelphia, Pa, and will never forget the comment from the mayor of Philadelphia, Missisipi at the time – “Who cares about two Jews and a Black man”, asked the Mayor, except that he used the “n” word to describe the late Mr. Chaney.
In other words, two Jews and a Blacks were expendable: They were non-people.
This week also coincides with the 76th birthday of Martin Luther King, on a day that is observed in the USA as a national time of reflection on matters related to human rights and civil liberties.
The is a also a time when Americans recall the 40th anniversary of the seminal on Selma – Montgomery Alabama march, which galvanized the issue of civil rights into a national moral concern
It may seem hard to recall but there have been times in the very recent history of Jews and of Black people when both were considered to be less than human beings.
It is for that reason that a contingent of Rabbis were proud to march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery.
Only few of those Rabbis are around today.
One of those Rabbis who marched with Dr. King to Montgomery was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who has lived in Israel since 1983 and is the Dean of Ohr Torah Educational Institutions and who is also the Rabbi of Efrat, Israel.
In 1965, He was then the young Rabbi Steven Riskin, recently ordained at Yeshiva U, and the Rabbi of the fledgling Lincoln Square Synagogue.
I asked Rabbi Riskin about the most vivid memories he had of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King and the message that he learned from Dr. King.
Rabbi Riskin: “Dr. Martin Luther King believed very profoundly, in democracy but he believed in democracy which understood, number one, freedom of speech and number two, the rights of a minority. And he understood that the right of a minority was the most important check and balance that democracy has. To that end, the minority has the right to adopt a strategy of passive resistance. If only a few people were to resist and only a few people would be willing to go to jail, then obviously it would not make such an impact. If many people did it, it would make a greater impact. And if close to a majority of people would do it, then obviously the government would have to rethink its entire policy.
In 1896, the US Supreme Court, in the “Plessy vs. Fergusen”case, ruled that ‘separate But equal’ is valid…as long as the Blacks got equal treatment – separate places on separate buses, separate schools, separate toilets,. separate drinking places, that would Not be considered to be violation of rights or discrimination. Martin Luther King belived that was not the case. Many Blacks believed that was not the case. And most importantly, Many whites believed that this was not the xase. In the march to Selma, there were many Many blacks and there were many whites,. And the message was the right Of passive resistance against a law that frowns on the rights of many black people.
I asked Rabbi Riskin if there was a particular experience that he had as a young Rabbi At the age of less than 25, when he marched with Dr. King.
Rabbi Riskin: “The sweetest experience was there were many Blacks who came over and asked about my beany. I had to explain the “kippa”, my head covering, in a way that would make sense. And I said that the beany is a freedom cap, and that we Jews believe in freedom, and that we emerged from a slave race, that God told Pharoah That we should be freed from Egyptian domination. I explained that we wear A head covering as a freedom cap. The name “freedom cap” spread like wild fire. And the Blacks asked where they get it. When we began passing by Jewish communities in the South, I asked for Kippot, and thousands of Blacks started wearing Kippot, very Proudly calling them freedom caps. It was obviously written in all of the newspapers, And that was especially exciting to me as a young Rabbi.”
[Indeed, when the US consulate in Jerusalem organized an exhibition in memory of Martin Luther King in Israel only a few years ago, the US consular press attaché mounted press clippings of the “freedom caps” that a young “Rabbi Raskin” gave out, en route to Montgomery.]
I asked Rabbi Riskin if there is a message from Dr. Martine Luther King’s moral Crusade that he feels that he can apply to the reality that we face today in the modern State of Israel.
Rabbi Riskin: ” I do not believe that the Torah takes an absolute strand on the question of disengagement. But I do believe that this is an issue which touches on the Conscience of every single individual. I believe that it is within the right of a democratic state to make a democratic decision to declare its boundaries, and even to declare Certain citizens as living beyond those boundaries. However, one of the most Fundamental human rights is the right of a human being to live in his home. One of the worst disasters that Jews have suffered throughout 2,000 years of persecution was being Exiled from their homes. For a Jewish government and for an Israeli government To ask people to leave their homes is, it seems to me, a very extreme act. It requires Enormous sensitivity. I think that there should have been a national referendum. In the absence of that, this should have been the issue of a new election, I think it would have Made it much easier for people to swallow. From what I understand now, the government is trying very ahrd to find suitable communities from Gush Katif and to transplant them, Almost as they are, to another location. That would be a step in the right direction.
From a moral point of view, I would have preferred to have seen this as part of a peace treaty, with the Palestinians on the other side, in their own nation…And if there is a Decision for passive resistance based on conscience, not absolute Jewish law,which would be tantamount to a call for insurrection. The movement should instead be based On a call to conscience, a call for protection of minorities, and speaking out without violence and in the spirit of passive resistance. I think that that is what is very much called for.
I asked Rabbi Riskin about the moral implications of the Israeli government decision to once again provide military training for the Palestinian security services, as mandated in clause five of the government decision, since those same security forces had carried out hundreds of deadly attacks against Israelis, especially over the past four years.
Rabbi Riskin: “I see a déjà vu of Oslo all over again. Oslo proved to be a Trojan Horse. I am afraid that we are being dragged into the same kind of situation. I am very very concerned. That is why I am against Sharon’s plan”.